Given the times we live in, you knew this would happen sooner or later – a complaint over the politics of a performer playing the Golden 1 Center.
This isn’t even about someone spouting controversial views from the stage, but a rock icon who may not even mention politics during his concert. Still, it does bring questions of free speech to the new publicly owned arena in downtown Sacramento.
Alan Edelstein – a prominent former lobbyist and now political consultant and pro-Israel activist – is urging the city and Kings to cancel the show by Roger Waters, the former Pink Floyd frontman set to play Golden 1 on June 12.
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Edelstein calls Waters, a vocal critic of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, an “unabashed Jew-hater.”
“The question is whether the Golden 1 Center, built with significant public financial support and intended to be a welcoming place for ALL of the people of the region, will host a person who spews such hate,” Edelstein wrote to top city and Kings officials. Edelstein, who splits his time between Sacramento and Jerusalem, copied Jewish community leaders on the letter and also posted it on his blog at the Times of Israel.
He never received a reply from City Hall or the team, so I asked around.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg says he knows and respects Edelstein, and also finds the views of Waters on Israel to be “offensive, even reprehensible.”
But he told me this week that “the city can’t determine who plays music based on their political views.” Even if it were a lecture focused on controversial views, it would still be tough call, he said.
The issue isn’t covered in the lease between the city, which owns Golden 1 Center, and the team, which runs the arena and books acts. The agreement does require that any naming rights won’t be “in bad taste” or a “cause for embarrassment to the city” or include companies involved in tobacco, guns, adult entertainment or non-pharmaceutical drugs. It also prohibits uses of the arena – such as gambling or the sale of drug paraphernalia – that could hurt the city’s image.
But the city says there are no provisions that would allow it to restrict or control the political views of performers or arena users, even if the First Amendment weren’t in play.
So it’s up to the team, which issued a statement Wednesday: “When booking events at Golden 1 Center, we first and foremost want to bring a diverse mix of the world’s best entertainment to Sacramento. The marketplace serves as our guide and we look for demand for artistry, not political views.”
Since the Kings ended their season Tuesday as their playoff drought continues, the team needs concerts and other acts to fill the seats.
Waters is a hot ticket right now. He recently added 11 dates to his 51-concert Us + Them North American tour, his biggest and most expensive yet, which also stops in June in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose.
But his personal views have made headlines, too.
At an October concert in Indio, Waters called for Israel to end its “occupation” of the Palestinian territories and voiced solidarity with California students pushing the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement that has divided UC campuses. He has tried to organize an artist boycott of Israel and has made some inflammatory remarks about ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the Jewish lobby’s influence. American Express reportedly pulled a $4 million sponsorship of the Waters tour.
I appreciate Edelstein’s strong stand on an issue clearly close to his heart. But as someone who believes in the First Amendment and whose livelihood depends on it, I’m very skeptical about limits on free speech, no matter how unsavory or unpopular the views.
No one is forced to buy tickets. There are always going to be acts whose backgrounds or views might offend or trouble some people. For instance, Chance The Rapper, booked at Golden 1 Center for April 27, won three Grammy awards in February but has also been criticized for some of his lyrics and had been involved in a nasty child support dispute. He played at UC Davis last October, and I haven’t heard of any campaign to cancel his concert.
Just allowing someone to perform isn’t an endorsement of everything they stand for or have said. Yet I also agree with Steinberg, who says he would have no problem with members of the Jewish community and other activists organizing a ticket boycott or demonstrating in front of the arena for the Waters show.
“The First Amendment goes both ways,” the mayor said.
He also worries, however, that a demonstration will only give more attention to Waters’ views, just as violent protests on Feb. 1 at UC Berkeley against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos became a national story.
“These are the tough ones,” Steinberg says of this issue. “If we start going down this road, we’ll have the president telling the news media what to write.”
Goodness knows, we don’t want that.